Doubling black

Percival Everett – I Am Not Sidney Poitier (Influx)

Released on March 19, this novel has been out of print since 2009, but Influx are republishing it in Britain with a new Foreword by Courttia Newland.

Percival Everett is the storyteller and his mode of telling is ‘shaggy dog’. The longer lineage begins with Tristram Shandy and runs through Confederacy of Dunces and the Vonnegut of Hocus Pocus. As literature goes – and in the case of the latter two, as American literature goes – that’s not very far from my ideal house of mansions.

Everett’s main character is called Not Sidney Poitier. Not Sidney looks exactly like Sidney Poitier and people assume he is called Not Sidney Poitier because of this. But his mother seems to have chosen the name despite the physical similarity. Her name was Portia Poitier.

Everett gleefully demolishes language and meaning like this. He inflates similarities until you feel laughing gas high. A fictional Percival Everett also appears in the novel, another inflated similarity (and one trying to lose weight). Perhaps the Joyce picture in the fictional Percival Everett’s office is a reference to James Joyce’s teasing out of equivalents, which Everett is up to in broad daylight, no stealth about it. On page 120, a jock of a college roommate points out that I am Not Sidney Poitier (the name) and ‘I am not Sidney Poitier’ (the disclaimer) are both affirmations of identity, as well as negations.

If the Hegelian dialectic is a historical wrestler’s hold – two tons of absolute tension going nowhere, just the occasional foot slam – this is two Sumo having fallen about in hysterical laughter because they suddenly realised the absurdity of how similar they looked. And yet they had become combatants!

In amongst all of this, some of the references simply hang. The picture of Terry McMillan is apparently in the fictional Percival Everett’s office because Terry McMillan likes reading books by the real Percival Everett.

Not Sidney Poitier’s mother Portia Poitier – get the poetry in this too – is also brilliantly crazy and dies during the opening pages. Not Sidney’s mother was impregnated by hysteria, which is both biblical and Freudian.

Not Sidney Poitier’s mother may be nuts, but she invested everything she had in an emerging television company before dying. The television company is owned by a white southern male that some fiction writers might begin with as the enemy, by default. The historical white cowboy in a black hat. But this white southern male owner, Ted, takes Not Sidney in and leaves him cared for, but essentially free. Ted’s politics comes through the dialogue:

‘Betty was teaching me about the evils of supply-side economics when Ted came into the room. Betty was just finishing a sentence, “…and though Keynesian economics is no kind thing to common people, Say’s Law is truly the work of the white, European, devil mind.”

“I’d have to agree,” Ted said.

This startled Betty. She had not seen him enter.

“I believe that the market is driven by demand,” Ted said. “Otherwise, people get screwed up the hind end. The only thing that ever trickles down to poor people is rain, and that ain’t much more than God’s piss.”‘

It’s an American’s take on class, but Everett’s fiction really exists in the interzone between the hard fact of American racism and a sheer ambivalence about ethnicity.

The thin membrane between comedy and damage is well known, but if this book were to be filmed – which would be great – the result would be very far from The Joker with Joaquin Phoenix. No matter how dark it gets, the acid trip physics of the thing seems to bleed light back through. Not Sidney Poitier gestated for two whole years:

‘Then after twenty-four months I was in fact born and not terribly quietly, mind you, as my mother woke many people with this emergency, at first by knocking, then by howling like a coyote, and so my entry was well attended and well documented by a shocked few who told a shocked, though mainly uncaring, many.’

The repeat use of ‘shocked’, where a trained journalist would insert another word – perhaps ‘astonished’ – is drawing your attention to the nature of language as wooden toys, which is pretty much how Lacan describes it at one point. In fact I swear Lacan is partly behind the second test paper question Not Sidney is given in his Philosophy class:

‘Is the I one’s body? Is fantasy the specular image? And what does this have to do with the Borromean knot? In other words, why is there no symptom too big for its britches?’

Not Sidney Poitier takes a class by the fictional Percival Everett, called the Philosophy of Nonsense. At one point the fictional author seems to give us a rationale for his art, that it is ‘perhaps a sort of epistemological discontinuity that is undoubtedly connected to […] our highly unusual sociohistorical factors.’

The way the narrative flips between the urban hypermodern and a sort of dark ages hell reminds me of Voltaire’s Candide, and the fictional Percival Everett is an even more bizarre version of Pangloss:

‘Everett talked on and on about a thing being self-identical, but failed at any turn to make a drop of sense. He laughed over his assertion that contingency was necessary for the existence of necessary truth and laughed harder as he blabbed on about truth as a “pliable vacuum of manipulated fragments of no whole entity.”’

Courttia Newland describes Everett as writing whatever he likes and I see why. This may in fact be ‘a pliable vacuum of manipulated fragments of no whole entity’, but the use of language is systematic, it is a strategy:

‘Her screams filled the streets like screams.’

It’s funny – and the logical rupture creates the laugh – but it loosens you up philosophically too. Jane Fonda appears, doing disco workouts. Already, only 23 pages in, whether this is the ‘real’ Jane Fonda or not is so unclear as to be irrelevant. Of course, Everett is showing you what language does again. Or rather, he is showing you what it never does, only appears to, and that is create a fixed tie between sign and referent.

Perhas this work is more disciplined than it seems because some of it takes the form of straight-out joking. Kids pick on Not Sidney Poitier because of his name. A rich seam of British comedy appears, for instance The Monty Python gag about Mr Smokestoomuch. The punchline comes when someone quips ‘you should cut down then, I bet everyone says that to you’ and Mr Smokestoomuch replies ‘no not at all.’ Everett sometimes pushes the same logic right to the edge though, to the point where the responses are almost pure form:

‘I did not say untiringly twice, not.’

Here and there, it turns into poetry, and Everett has published volumes of it. Out beyond language lies a realm of shapes with no sense, ‘meaning’ is behind us here. Here are Plato’s forms. But these examples only stud the text. Mostly, Everett never goes as far as Joyce or Pynchon.

Mostly this is a landscape of shifting, sliding scenery. The TV magnate’s boat is called Channel Seventeen, a clear metonymical shift from Channel Steamer, but the boat is a sloop. A version of Mesmerism by an Austrian psychologist called Fesmer becomes Fesmerism. It only takes a single consonant shift to knock meaning into another world, but as in the case of the hypnosis, what the name change is applied to is often very appropriate. This puts a capital S onto the ‘Semi’ in semi-arbitrary. We are all mesmerised by language precisely because it makes little difference if you call it ‘fesmerised’ or something else.

Fancy semiotic analysis is all well and good, but the novel works on a more direct level. The fact that kids are willing to beat the shit out of another kid because of his name translates immediately into their willingness to beat the shit out of someone because they have darker skin.

Not Sidney has wealth but doesn’t really own it, can never fully inhabit it. His own name is a lack, a presence as a wipe.

Under our jokes there is often a brutal politics. I’m reminded of Eddie Hitler in the British comedy TV series Bottom, who is asked if he is ‘any relation?’ to which he replies ‘yes, actually.’ But under the joking here is what Courttia Newland explains in the Foreword as a ‘sustained, hard won argument for being considered American with no signifier.’

Earnest black ladies appear, telling Not Sidney of the evils of the white man and capitalism. Not Sidney carries on with something approaching ambivalence. At exactly the same time, the logically unscrewed world Everett creates brings ‘race’ right back in again. The sheer unlikeliness of Not Sidney’s origins and good fortune ushers in urban sociology. Weber’s iron cage for instance, that rationalisation also rationalises-out. W.E.B. Du Bois and others seem to appear as I read – in fact there’s a Du Bois building – but they appear in a strange double-negative form. Not Sidney talks eloquently about his mother:

‘My point is, she didn’t want to be white. More importantly, she didn’t want to be not black.’

Courttia Newland writes that ‘Percival Everett recognised, seemingly before most, that speaking truth to power does not end with speaking truth to power held by White people. We must speak truth as a whole.’

But maybe I secretly like the sound of that because I’m a white guy writing a review. Maybe ‘the post-Black novel’ is actually Double Black, and this is a novel of doubles and doubling. The author probably won’t recognise that assertion, but I think there’s something in it.

Percival Everett manages to speak ‘truth as a whole’ by being ambivalent about his signs having referents. This then becomes an exact mirror of his politics of race. That he takes you through all that seriousness doubled over, crying with laughter, is utterly brilliant.

But the ambivalence is really only present in this book when we’re in a setting of urban wealth. As soon as anyone leaves a city, we return to some sort of primordial AmeriKKKa. Twice Not Sidney lights out for the Big Country in a car and drives straight into psychotic crackers and weirdos. Each time he should have flown.

Actually, scratch that, the section on the Thanksgiving meal with the black middle classes who think Poitier is too dark is lacerating. Here we get Not Sidney’s dead mother’s take on Thanksgiving:

‘My mother had been, if not disdainful then suspicious of holidays; she thought that they were all either some form of corporate extortion, religious indoctrination, or governmental propaganda. Thanksgiving fell into the third category — one big glorious lie to put a good face on continental theft.’

Not Sidney’s mother is another strong presence as an absence. She has a brilliant potty mouth. Her reaction to a TV appearance of Ward and June Cleaver is devastatingly funny:

‘“How dare they put that propaganda on the television?” my mother barked. “But of course that’s what the box is for, isn’t it? Here is my black son sitting here in his black neighborhood watching some bucktoothed little rat and his washed-out, anally stabbed, Nazi-Christian parents.”‘

There is far more to the novel than even this, and this book is too good for spoilers. But if it sounds like what you need right now, you won’t be disappointed. No wonder Courttia Newland read one single book by Everett before hoovering up the lot.

Manchester Review of Books would like to push for a full flowering of all of Percival Everett’s works in Britain – his books are much more easily available in America – and to do that we have to try to get you to buy this one.

– Steve Hanson

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